Fracking New York State

Photo courtesy of Laurence P. DeWitt and Environmental Advocates of NY. For more aerial photos visit

To drillers, “hydrofracking” refers to a very precise moment in the development of a well, the injection of fluids under high pressure to break bedrock. There have been methods of doing this used in NY since the 1940s, a fact that gas industry officials like to tout to support their claims that the process is safe. What has not been done here, and is wreaking havoc in other states, is a new process developed in the 1990s known as high-volume slickwater hydraulic fracturing. What a mouthful! Can you blame people for shortening this to simply “hydrofracking” when they talk about it?

Most people consider “hydrofracking” to mean this new process and all supporting processes, such as trucking, drilling, casing the well, disposing of flowback fluids, etc. It is shorthand for a method and scale of gas drilling that is new to NY. The industry’s claims that hydrofracking is safe rely on their very narrow definition of hydrofracking; they don’t, for example, consider a well casing failure that sends natural gas into a neighbor’s drinking well a “hydrofracking accident”. The 14 neighbors in Dimock, Pennsylvania who have lost their water beg to differ. The EPA is considering using this broader definition as they undertake their study into how hydrofracking affects drinking water, but are under pressure to use the industry’s narrow definition.

Our water is our most precious resource...
Fresh Water In   An average of 5.6 million gallons of fluid is used per “frack job”. Each well can be fracked multiple times. The fresh water used is taken from lakes, rivers, streams, and aquifers. The Susquehanna River Drainage Basin requires permits and regulates water withdrawal, but nothing similar exists yet for the Great Lakes watershed. Sand and a chemical cocktail (see T. Shelley article on page 10) are mixed with the water before injection into the gas well. The chemical combinations in the fluid have been closely guarded, with much of the technology owned by Halliburton. However, analysis of samples in Colorado, Wyoming and New Mexico revealed diesel fuel and “over 200 different kinds of chemicals, over 95% of which have adverse effects including brain damage, birth defects and cancer.”  The gas industry reassures us that fracking fluid is only 0.5% chemicals. Do the math (0.5% of 5.6 million gallons = 280,000 gallons of chemicals each time) and any reassurance quickly dies.

Toxic Water Out   Some of the fracking fluid (estimates range from 15-70%) comes back out, but the fate of the rest is unknown. Does it stay trapped in the shale, or eventually move through soil and rock layers, reaching underground water supplies? What does come out (called “flowback”) is even more hazardous than what went in because fracturing releases radioactive materials (such as radon and radium), heavy metals (such as arsenic, lead, mercury), and many salts from the shale.  Some drilling enthusiasts have suggested that “green” fracking fluids might eliminate all the soil, air, and water pollution created by drilling, but the sad reality is that even if pure water were used in place of fracking fluid, the resulting flowback would still be laced with highly toxic chemicals brought out from the shale itself. Once drilling is completed and the well is producing natural gas, it continues to generate waste fluids as the gas comes out of the ground mixed with water. This “produced water” or “brine” is also toxic, and must continually be trucked away. 

What happens to the enormous quantities of contaminated wastewater retrieved from the wells? There are problems with the three options tried so far:

Processing through standard wastewater treatment plants
In October 2008, 350,000 Pittsburgh residents were told to use bottled water because of the high level of contaminants in their water supply from the Monogahela River. The municipal treatment plants were unable to process drilling waste water sufficiently. In NY, wastewater treatment plants accepting flowback fluids (like Watertown, NY) have done so in very small quantities, depending on the old erroneous belief that “dilution is the solution to pollution”; if you can’t detect it, it’s not there. This method will not handle the quantities proposed from widespread drilling.

Open evaporation pits/tanks
These are used in the arid southwest climate resulting in serious problems (see the film Split Estate); they are not considered practical for our climate as they are apt to overflow.

Deep well injection

Pumping the waste into non-producing gas wells is highly controversial since nothing is known of its long-term safety. Toxic water may migrate through fractures in the rock layers and contaminate local aquifers and drinking wells. In October 2009, Chesapeake Energy submitted a permit application to the NYSDEC to create a disposal well in Pulteney, NY, less than 1 mile west of Keuka Lake. The company has withdrawn its application, but it had planned to inject up to 181,440 gallons of toxic brine per day for 10 years from hydrofracked wells in NY and Pennsylvania.

Air and Noise Pollution

Diesel generators, drill rigs, huge tanker trucks for transporting fracking components to and from well sites, compressor stations operating 24/7 for the life of a well (up to 40 years) every piece of equipment needed for hydrofracking generates significant air and noise pollution. Add in well flaring, venting, routine gas leaks..Now imagine the visual pollution of our beautiful upstate NY landscape by the clearcutting needed to build thousands of wellpads covering 3-5 acres apiece, compressor stations, pipelines, huge tanker trucks demolishing rural roads and degrading the adjacent soil, water and wildlife habitat. For the dirty details, please visit or

There now exists a clear record across the US of serious problems caused by gas extraction operations using hydrofracking. These include methane migration resulting in exploding wells and ignitable drinking water, increased ground-level ozone, carcinogens and neurotoxins in air and water, and numerous spills and leaks of fracking fluid.

Yet in the face of all this, the industry maintains that fracking is safe, and denies responsibility even while acknowledging that accidents will happen.  Oil spill in the Gulf, anyone?  The pollution exemptions granted the oil and gas industry under the 2005 Energy Act are not accidental; neither are the subsidies, tax advantages or royalty relief the Act provides. Safe drinking water, clean air and water, even our right to obtain critical information were whittled away.

Each state is on its own to oversee fracking. We in NY are being warned and informed by the tragic experiences of many other states. The DEC’s dSGEIS is fatally inadequate; the DEC has only 17 staff to enforce even that pittance of regulation throughout the entire state, which already contains 13,000 active oil and gas wells. It is critical that we insist that NY look past the dollar signs of leasing bonuses and potential royalties (the DEC has leases on 63,591 acres of state land), and see the true costs to people and the environment.

 Adapted by Marilyn Willits and Lindsay Speer from material by Sandy Podulka at

2010Accept the Marcellus Challenge!

Hydrofracking poses unacceptable risks to our region; yet drilling advocates insist that the constantly increasing demand for natural gas means that extraction is inescapable. But what if demand for natural gas stopped growing, or even fell? What if more people embraced moving straight to a clean energy future, bypassing an era of massive hydrofracking?

We invite you to accept the Marcellus Challenge. Pledge to reduce your consumption of natural gas and other fossil fuels. We’ll collect your pledges, provide you with resources, and share our results with media and elected of. cials. If you’ve already taken steps to reduce your fossil fuel consumption, please let us know so that our movement can take credit for changes that have already been made. It’s very simple and quick: go to and look for the Marcel-lus Challenge button.

Together we can say no to destructive, extractive indus-tries…and say yes to green jobs, responsible lifestyles, and wise stewardship of our land and water.

-Gay Nicholson, President, Sustainable Tompkinsdepending